2024 Boat of the Year: Best Performance Cruiser

A pair of sleek, fast, beautifully presented yachts from Italy were the nominees for the top Performance Cruiser.
Italia Yachts 14.98 testing
The Italia 14.98’s size is well-suited for long-range cruising. Special woods and fabrics are employed on the interior, which offers ample and comfortable spaces designed for easy living. Walter Cooper

After dockside tours of this year’s two finalists for Best Performance Cruiser whet the collective appetite of the judging panel, we couldn’t wait to hoist sail and evaluate each of these boats’ sailing prowess. And in both cases, we were in for a treat. “Performance cruiser” can be a somewhat vague concept to define, but it’s instructive to note that our sister publication—the focused yacht-racing magazine, Sailing World—categorizes these boats as “crossovers.” In other words, they can seamlessly serve cross purposes, as inshore or offshore racers, or as dedicated cruising boats. In both instances here, that selective criteria is perfectly addressed. 

Winner: Italia Yachts 14.98

“Whoa,” judge Tim Murphy said. “I’ve never in my life sailed a boat like this. It pointed higher than any I can think of: an apparent wind angle of 24 degrees! Powered up under main alone, it pointed higher than most boats will with all sails set. The structure is infused vinylester employing E-glass with carbon reinforcements, with Divinycell foam of different densities. That carbon fiber was put to very good use; this boat was uncommonly stiff. The hull form was more curved, more pleasing than some of the slab-sided boats we’re seeing of this generation. A crew of 10 on an Italia came in third in the most recent Annapolis to Newport Race. This was one of the most powerful, close-winded sailing experiences I can remember. An exemplary performance sailboat.”

Judge Mark Pillsbury was equally captivated: “During our dockside visit of the Italia 14.98, the builder’s representative said that the boat was designed and fit-out for a cruising customer who likes performance and speed. He called the 14.98 an ‘upwind missile,’ and when we got to sail the boat a few days later on a breezy morning, we all could see just what he meant. What a great ride. At one point, in about 12 knots of breeze with the spinnaker up and the speedo pushing double digits, it was quite lively on deck. That’s when I stepped below and was struck by how smooth and peaceful it was in the salon. This was a boat where those on watch could crack off some miles while the off-watch could really rest up and be ready when it was their time on deck.”

Judge Herb McCormick added: “I’ve met a few Italia owners,” judge Herb McCormick said. “Very successful guys who use their boats a lot and sail them well, and competition is a big reason they go sailing in the first place. They want to have a yacht where they can compete with anyone in events like the Newport Bermuda Race. These folks can have whatever boat they want, and they chose an Italia. And once I got on the wheel of the bloody thing, it was pretty evident why. In a week of great sails, this 49-footer may have set the gold standard.”

Runner-up: Solaris Yachts 44

Solaris Yachts 44 testing
The Solaris Yachts 44 was designed for fast cruising with a reduced crew. All lines are lead to just two winches within easy reach of the helmsman. Walter Cooper

Like its fellow nominee from Italy, the Solaris 44 is well-suited to the concept of performance cruising, and it too provided the judging team with a thrilling sail. “This is one of those boats that I had a hard time evaluating on the dock, but once underway, it really sailed beautifully,” judge Tim Murphy said.

“Yes,” judge Mark Pillsbury seconded, “as. “As a performance cruiser, the Solaris was well-suited to both missions. The three-cabin, two-head layout works well for an owner with occasional guests; there was plenty of storage; and underway, the boat was quiet and bright below. And the 44 sports a powerful, but manageable sail plan. I mean, talk about a boat that lights up under sail! The 44 was a dream to drive upwind and down. With the kite up in 10 to 12 knots of breeze, the speed hovered right around 10 knots. Upwind, cruising along with the self-tacking jib, the steering was silky smooth even in the gusts, and the twin rudders gave us really good control.”

Judge Herb McCormick also gave this boat good marks: “Like the Italia, with its long waterline, plumb bow and lovely transom, to my eye, this Solaris is a really lovely boat,” judge Herb McCormick said. “And I agree with my fellow panelists: It’s: It’s a terrific sailing boat. Unfortunately, it had the poor luck for this year’s contest to be matched up with the sensational Italia. But it should be noted that the Italia is priced at over $1.1 million, and this Solaris, at $700,000, comes in at about a half-million less. That’s a huge discrepancy. For many sailors seeking a dual-purpose alternative, this Solaris is well worth exploring and will meet their requirements just fine.”